The four great chimneys of Grade I-listed Winslow Hall, on the southern edge of the small north Buckinghamshire town of Winslow, are a familiar landmark for motorists crossing the Vale from Aylesbury to Buckingham. But how many, I wonder, are aware that Sir Christopher Wren’s gem of a William and Mary house, built for Treasury Secretary William Lowndes between 1699 and 1702, is the only remaining example of a Wren house outside London? Or that it came within an ace of being demolished after the war by a firm of contractors who bought it for £8,000 in 1947?
According to an article in Country Life (August 24, 1951), ‘scores of houses up and down the country are popularly believed to be the work of Inigo Jones or Sir Christopher Wren, but when the facts, circumstances and the buildings themselves are examined, most of the claims melt away’. In the end, only three private houses have stood up to scrutiny, of which only Winslow Hall has survived substantially unaltered, and with a detailed set of original accounts to prove it. Of the others, Tring Manor House was completely remodelled in Victorian times, and Thoresby House was burned down soon after it was completed. Wren was foremost an architect of public buildings, who spent 35 years designing and rebuilding St Paul’s; he also built some 55 churches, chapels, government offices, colleges, halls of residence, theatres, palaces and, of course, the garden pavilions at Hampton Court (Property Market, April 12, 2007). Wren was in his late sixties when he took on the supervision of the construction of Winslow Hall, inspecting the book of accounts, and deducting payments in respect of any shoddy workmanship. Wren’s masterpiece took three years to complete, and cost £6,585 10s 2d every penny scrupulously accounted for.
Winslow Hall remained in the ownership of the Lowndes family until 1897, when Brig McCorquodale bought it. During the Second World War, the hall was requisitioned by RAF Bomber Command, who left it in poor condition. Thanks to swift action by the Wren Society, the building was saved from demolition when Buckinghamshire County Council were persuaded to invoke their powers under the new Town and Country Planning Act. Offered for sale once more, the hall was bought by antique dealer Geoffrey Houghton Brown, who secured one of the first grants given to a historic house by the Ministry of Works to help meet the cost of replacing the original lead roof laid by Matthew Roberts, who also worked on St Paul’s.
In 1959, the house was sold to its present owners, the former diplomat Sir Edward Tomkins and his wife. In the ensuing decades, they restored and updated the house to modern standards, installing heating, adding bathrooms and relocating the kitchen. Now this remarkable house with its five splendid reception rooms, six bathroom suites, coach house, outbuildings and 5.14 acres of charming landscaped gardens, the whole set in 17 acres of historic parkland, is for sale through Jackson-Stops & Staff (020?7664 6646) and Savills (020?7499 8644) at a guide price of ‘excess £3 million’.